Armchair Historians

Savor & Yore's Melanie Hamilton Talks About Ida B. Wells

July 28, 2020 Melanie Hamilton/Anne Marie Cannon
Armchair Historians
Savor & Yore's Melanie Hamilton Talks About Ida B. Wells
Chapters
Armchair Historians
Savor & Yore's Melanie Hamilton Talks About Ida B. Wells
Jul 28, 2020
Melanie Hamilton/Anne Marie Cannon

Savor & Yore's Melanie Hamilton tells us about the harrowing story of American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement Ida B. Wells. Melanie, a native Texan and writer by trade, lives with her husband, Brett, and "dog-child" in Tbilisi, Georgia (the country not to be confused with the state) where she writes about history, food and culture.

The story of Ida B. Wells is timely as we are in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests throughout the US, and indeed the world, in the wake of the George Floyd murder at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin while other officers looked on. In the 1890's Well's documented the lynching of African American men throughout the South and exposed the unjust barbaric practice by whites for what it was.

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Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases

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Show Notes Transcript

Savor & Yore's Melanie Hamilton tells us about the harrowing story of American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement Ida B. Wells. Melanie, a native Texan and writer by trade, lives with her husband, Brett, and "dog-child" in Tbilisi, Georgia (the country not to be confused with the state) where she writes about history, food and culture.

The story of Ida B. Wells is timely as we are in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests throughout the US, and indeed the world, in the wake of the George Floyd murder at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin while other officers looked on. In the 1890's Well's documented the lynching of African American men throughout the South and exposed the unjust barbaric practice by whites for what it was.

Savor & Yore

Melanie's Instagram

Melanie's Facebook

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases

Support the show:

Become a patron on Patreon

Buy us a cup of coffee on Ko-fi

Speaker 1:

Thank you for joining us today for armchair historians. I'm your host Ann Marie Cannon . Armchair historians is a Belgian rabbit production. Stay up to date with us through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Wherever you listen to your podcast , that is where you'll find us. You can also find [email protected] Armchair historians is an independent commercial free podcast . If you would like to support the show, you can buy us a cup of coffee through Kofi , or you can become a subscribing member through Patrion. You can find links to both in the episode notes today, we are talking to Melanie Hamilton. Melanie is a writer based in Tbilisi, Georgia, not Georgia, the state, but Georgia, the country. I had to Google it in 2018 Melanie chucked it all. She quit her job and moved abroad to pursue her passion, which meets at the cross section of food, culture and history. Melanie, who is a native Texan, her husband and dog child in tow made temporary homes in Catalonia, Valencia, Comunidad, and Andalusia. Before arriving in typically seek to find out more about Melanie and her exciting journey. Go to savor and jor.com. I'll put a link in the episode notes at saver in your you'll find stories of history, war famine, and the people at the forefront who shaped the world. We know today, you also learn about the food of different regions, including its history and culture. Today. Melanie talks about one of her favorite historical figures, Ida B Wells [inaudible] Melanie Hamilton. Welcome and thank you for being here.

Speaker 2:

Thank you so much for having me in. I am happy to be here.

Speaker 1:

We start every interview out with basically the same question. So what is your favorite history that we're going to be talking about today?

Speaker 2:

My favorite history that we are talking about today is easily the story of Ida B Wells. She was an anti-lynching activist and an incredible investigative journalist at the time. Her story is just mind blowing. Could you give us a little background about her? Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah ,

Speaker 1:

So I , it was born

Speaker 2:

The mid 18 hundreds and a place called Holly Springs, Mississippi. And she was actually born into slavery six months after she was born. We all know the emancipation proclamation came about and the remaining Confederate slaves were freed, including her family. After this happened, her parents and her siblings, they were recently freed from slavery. She was one of six. Her parents became extremely involved in advocating for recently freed people and coming up with , uh , different things that they could do within the community to help kind of empower recently free people, help them find jobs, help them get proper education, read, write all of that. And her father actually started a school. Then by the time she was 16, she became orphaned because of the death of her parents. And this kind of sent her off on this trail to kind of, I like to think that she was trying to continue a lot of the work that they were doing. She took care of her siblings and eventually became an investigative journalist. But her main thing, her main , uh , I guess pillar, you could say was anti-lynching and she wound up making that her entire life's work to investigating these things, these, these lynchings, how they happen, where they happen, why they happen and how to stop it.

Speaker 1:

Do you think that she was successful in her work and what she was trying to accomplish? Yes. Yes they do.

Speaker 2:

So in her investigation of lynchings, when she first set off a , so there was one, one big thing that happened, it kind of spiraled her into this. It was an event called the people's grocer lynching, and it happened in a small little subdivision, I guess you could say, right outside of Memphis, Tennessee in a place called the curve and these three black grocers where they were basically attacked by this angry white mob, because they were bringing competition to white businesses in town. And this was extremely common at the time they were attacked. And then the police were called because these grocers, these businessmen were defending themselves, but of course they wound up being arrested because they're defending themselves, but they're black and it's, you know, these 30, 40 white men's opinion against theirs, they're taken to jail. And later that night they're kidnapped from the jail. All three of them are lynched. And one of these men was actually really great friends with Ida that really promoted civil rights, but it was kind of a small time thing. That was really just in Memphis. Like I said, it kind of put her at a crosswords because she thought I can pursue this and I can try to stop this from happening, or I can stay here and be comfortable writing about these things that go on in town , um , or I can do something bigger and she chose to do something bigger after this, after this lynching happened in this small city, right outside of Memphis, like I said, she set off all across the Southern us and she investigated nearly 700 lynchings that had taken place over the past 10 years. And in her investigating this, why this is so important is because before I came along, nobody was counting these lynchings. Nobody was paying attention to where they were happening. And for what reasons, quote unquote, I mean, there's no reason, but for what reasons they were happening, nobody had written this stuff down. It was really just something that would happen. And then because of the way that law enforcement was at the time and the way that these communities worked, nobody cared and nobody minded to jot this stuff down. There would be towns that would have, you know, let's say a hundred lynchings in the past five years and there's maybe 70%, 60% of those actually have a record of ever even happening. So there were so many things that were falling through the cracks and it's all thanks to her that she ever even cared to kind of go and be this trailblazer, I guess you could say, and investigate all this stuff because nobody, there was no log of this before. And she's the one who went to these towns and found out you have a real problem here. There's actually a real problem all over the country with this. And without her, I mean, who knows how much longer it would have been because at the time that the people's grocer lynching happened from that time for the next 50 ish years, there was going to be another 3000 lynchings total.

Speaker 1:

Do you think that her, you know, shining light on it had, you know, positive effect ? And if so, like what is the evidence of that?

Speaker 2:

I think that at first, these really rural communities that she was going to, of course there was a really negative reaction. There was an extremely negative reaction because people don't want to be told that they're doing something wrong. Not only that they're doing something wrong, but that they're doing something evil. So I think that at first it was negative. Uh , I think total reaction was negative at first, but I think that overall her outcome was extremely positive. And I think if I had to name something that could, that could be evidenced by, it would be the fact that she later went on to prove and to do all these editorials . So while she was investigating this stuff, she was still a journalist and still an editor. So she was exposing the fact . And I think this is the biggest thing that she exposed. She was exposing the fact that the reason these men were being lynched was actually not because they were raping women. This was a huge thing. This was a huge reason. The main reason that these cops and these townspeople and stuff like that were able to get away with these barbaric lynchings was because most of the time they would say, well, this man , um , raped a woman, or he tried to, or something like that, which lots of issues with that too, of course, but that was kind of their justification for doing something awful like that. And what she found in her investigations were that there were actually really few cases of all 700 lynchings that she investigated it actually involved in any sort of accusation of any sexual assault, not even just rape, but that involves any sort of accusation of that at all. And a lot of those accusations were women who were having affairs. And in some cases, women who yes were assaulted by these men or whatever, which doesn't even matter in the grand scheme of things. It's not a right to do that to someone, but that, that was a really, really a small percentage of , of all the different families and townspeople and the law enforcement officials and stuff like that. But she interviewed to get to the bottom of these lynchings. The main reason for these lynchings was all business competition. So you have all of these newly freed people. Who've been enslaved forever, who pretty much all of these white people still view as very less than, I mean, very, very below as you can be. And this, this sort of discuss and hate for this. If they come in, if a black man comes in and opens, you know, a gas station or like a shoe business or something like that, if there is another white guy in town who also has a gas station and he happens to feel threatened whenever his ego is hurt, or maybe a few customers go there, go to the gas station or the shoe place that would lead to him being lynched. So then this, this breeds a whole other series of problems because you have these black people who are terrified to go into business because of what could happen to them. But then on the other side, all of these white people think that, you know, these men are being lynched because they're horrific race or rapists and all this stuff, which again, doesn't matter anyway, but it's just two completely different sides, you know? And the truth lies in the fact that a lot of time , this was a competition.

Speaker 1:

You know, I don't, I didn't really know about her before this. And of course this all comes out in the day, you know, we're in , uh, June 20, 20, we're in the middle of a pandemic. And also we are in the middle of , um, you know, black lives matter. And the realization of I'm gonna not say this, right, but you know that there's still huge racism, covert and overt systemic racism. And, you know, the indicator of that is w we need an Ida right now to be , uh, you know, keeping data on this. But of course is the, the unrelenting shooting and killing of men of color. Um, and in that , that this is our lynching today. And so one of the things I want to do with my show, like I was saying before we started recording, is I want to bring more diverse , uh , stories and voices to the forefront. And I think this is, this is an important story that we need to know about and learn from. And , uh, I was just, you know, Ida was, she didn't , it seems like she didn't try to necessarily work with the institutions. You know, like the NAACP, even though she was a cofounder, was she a cofounder?

Speaker 2:

She went on to do that. And so many other things,

Speaker 1:

But she wasn't, she wasn't interested in placating the white man or anything like that. She was just interested in getting to the truth. And I think in some ways that's why she, her legacy, maybe isn't as loud as , uh , you know, Booker T Washington or somebody like that because she wasn't trying to negotiate with nobody. She was saying, you know, this is what's happening to these people. And she was shining a light on it without, you know, trying to negotiate with the white

Speaker 2:

And trying to play nicely, you know? And I think that's a big thing. My opinion, at least today is in my opinion, a lot of white people, when they see a story from a person of color , uh , like Martin Luther King, for example, they love to pin him on everything because he was so peaceful in their mind. And , and , and in their minds , you know, you have this man who played by the rules and did every, you know, quote unquote, did everything right? Follow the law and all of this. When, when in reality, Martin Luther King did advocate for, for protests and even to have violent protests if needed, but why people, I think I'm a cellphone wife , but I think that why people like to use him as an example, because he kind of colored inside the lines in their mind. So a lot of people , um , I used to hear this when I was growing up that Malcolm X was a bad example of a civil rights later because he was violent. He was chaotic and he was all the stuff that has nothing to do with anything they're saying, I don't want to listen to this person because in my opinion, he's being unruly and he's not, you know, what it really all goes back to you is he is not protesting the way that I want him to protest. I mean, that's really what it is. So I think that in general history likes to honor these people who, as a general idea, you could say that they follow the rules and they walked in a straight line, you know, and I was just not like that. I mean, she took a lot of things into her own hands. And so did a lot of these historical figures who, who really, really changed the tights , you know?

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Let me just kind of, self-disclose , uh, obviously I am a white woman and , um, I was raised by a police officer from Cleveland, Ohio who was racist, you know, and I was raised to believe that black people were the enemy, even though, as a kid, I kind of always knew that there was something really wrong with that. And it never resonated as right with me, what I've discovered, you know , through this wave of bringing attention to what is really going on , uh , in the black community is that , uh, there's a book out called white fragility. I don't know if you've heard of it. And I cannot think of the author's name. Do you know her ?

Speaker 2:

I don't know her name, but I have heard of that book,

Speaker 1:

You know, and it really talks about getting, going deeper into our racism, what causes the system , systemic racism and making us look at the, the, what we think may seem subtle as we make the discoveries as white people, to where we are basically perpetuating , um, this ability for things like , uh , shootings of , uh, you know, people of men of color , uh, that type of thing. And so there's all these little , uh, seemingly benign things that we do. But when we really take them out into the light a day, which this book white fragility really , uh , brings to the forefront, I'll put a link to the information about the book in the episode notes, and it's really uncomfortable and I'm uncomfortable because I have to look at myself and I have to see, you know, where I am responsible for perpetuating this, right .

Speaker 2:

Same here, same here,

Speaker 1:

You know, and there's a part of me that sometimes it's like, it's just too much, I don't want to deal with it. And I can't do that. I can't afford to do that because by doing that, I'm contributing to the problem. And so I think that it's easy for , um, groups of people to just, you know, shove it in the back and not look at it. And here we are. It's another opportunity to look at how we are really a part of this problem as white people in general. And I, you know, even liberal white people, Ida really caught my eye. You caught my eye. And I'm curious to know what made you decide to write in your blog, savor in your , uh, what made you obviously decide to write about that on the day that you chose to , which is in the height of the protests?

Speaker 2:

Sure. So , um, I generally love diving into lesser known historical figures who played a key role in something. I wrote a piece a while back , uh , a couple of months ago on Eugene Valor , who was the first black fighter pilot nobody's ever heard of this guy. And he lived this incredible life. And, you know, the early half of his life was steeped in racism and so much prejudice, and he made it out and, and , uh, he lived this crazy, you know, Gaspe style life in Paris. And then , uh, became, like I said, first black fighter pilot. And then he opened up a club and he lived this incredible life. He fell in love, he had kids. And then he comes back to the U S and he's totally spat on how it gets no respect , uh , and basically lives out his dying days, working as an elevator operator. And I mean, dies alone in an apartment by himself. And to me, I'm so inspired by those stories because they really, they paved the way. But for some reason, they're not as well known as , um , other big historical figures, you know, like Alan Turing or George Washington, for example, or, you know, all of these other people. So I love those things. And , uh, I was just researching and I said, I really want to use my platform to amplify these voices of people who people at these, these people, especially women of color who maybe have never even been heard of before. And that's , that's really how I came across her. And I was so inspired by her story of just , um , kind of taking things into her own hands. I mean, of course she wasn't in law enforcement or anything, but when she realized when she got that , um , fire in her belly, you could say to , to get to the bottom of these lynchings and stop this from happening. She didn't , um, and there's nothing wrong with us , but she didn't petition people to do it. And she didn't ask other people to do it. She didn't even know , try to get a group together or anything. She went out herself and personally investigated and looked, all of these really, really disgusting things, right in the eye, the darkest, darkest pockets of racism in the South. She went to places where literally people were lynched, this specific wooded area, and people would come and have picnics there while the lynching was going on. It was a family event. And she went to these communities and she talked to these people herself. And to me, I always think, you know, not only was she an incredible woman who had a lot of , uh , I guess we could say ovarian forwarded to , to be able to do this, but she was, she was a woman of color. And she went into these, like the heart of the KKK. She went in and was asking these questions. And I was just so amazed because I had never heard of her before either. And that was my big reason for writing about her, because I thought, I don't think I've ever heard this name before. Who is this woman? I see, okay. Investigative journalists . And then I start reading more about how, not only was she an investigative journalist and , uh, you know, anti-lynching and all this stuff, but in her earlier life, you know, I told you she lost her parents at 16, and then she cared for her remaining siblings. So she lost both of her parents and one sibling, two yellow fever in the span of like two days when she was 16. And she was left to take care of the rest of her family. She becomes orphaned and she's only 16. And she has her other siblings to take care of. She should have four other siblings I believe to take care of. And she goes to the local school and she lies to them. She tells them that she's 18 so that she can work as a teacher because she has no other way to support her family outside of that. And not only that, but I mean, at this point, slaves had only been fried in Mississippi for 16 years, like 15 and a half years. So he, the odds are really stacked against her. She becomes a teacher and later on, she moves to Memphis years later after her siblings grow up. And , uh , I believe at this point, she's probably around 20, 22 years old. She moves to Memphis with her sisters. She buys the first class ticket because at this time she's already reading the newspaper called the free speech and headlight, I believe free speech and headlight. And she was co-owner and editor of this, which kind of brought light to racial injustices in Memphis, which you can imagine there was a time of news about this. I mean, it's the late 18 hundreds, and there's still such a long way to go even to get to where we are now, which isn't great. She's doing that. And she's doing pretty well for herself. She manages to make it through raising her siblings that are only 16 years old, make it to Memphis, open up her own press. Then she gets on a train. She gets on a first class train and she's asked to leave because they say that she can't sit here because, you know, she may disturb the white people who are in the cabin of this string . And she refuses, you know, she says, no, and this is long before the age of Rosa parks and all of these other amazing people that came here and Rosa parks, right. Nobody was doing this at this time. They would say, okay, because if you don't agree, if you don't say, okay, I mean, there were some big consequences. She says, no, I bought this ticket. I'm sitting here like everyone else. This is a first class cabin. You know, I paid to have my cocktails here and whatever that conductor comes out and then a few staff of his come out and they escort her off the cabin. They pick her up out of her seat and escort her off the cabin. And she bites one of them on the hand, she cooked, she fastened her teeth onto Palm and just bit until she pulls skin up and she goes out, and this is kind of the first time when I'm researching her . This is the first time I realized, okay, this girl means business. She's not even waiting to , until she's made to get off the physical train, not even go to a different cabin. She is literally going out kicking and screaming and biting and everything. And I think that kind of elevated her more into the publication that she was already running in Memphis and then things kind of continue to evolve. And eventually there was, like I said, the people's grocery lynching. And you read about her. You kind of see all these different things that were catalysts for her and how she became so motivated to continue to continue doing this because even with the anti-lynching campaigns and all the investigative journalism that she did throughout the South for a few years, she didn't even stop there. I mean, she eventually moved to Chicago and started a whole other chapter. I mean, from start to finish, she went a thousand miles an hour.

Speaker 1:

Yes , she did. Um, and it's surprising that she didn't rise to the top of the historical record. Uh, absolutely. Um, how was she able to continue doing what she did and yet flying under the radar? You know, did she have, how did she make her money? Did she make really good money as a journalist or

Speaker 2:

So the free speech in headlight that she ran Memphis. She continued to run that while she was traveling across the South. And she did do really well for herself. Um, she definitely wasn't struggling in that sense. And while she was continuing to investigate , um, you know, these different cities and stuff where these things were happening, she was continuing to , um, to publicize it and put out articles, kind of exposing these areas. And in fact, wherever newspapers were printed, that was actually burned down at a point with death threats. And, you know, if you ever come back to Memphis, because people in Memphis got worried , Oh, there's this girl, that's the girl who runs a free speech and headlight, and she's going and exposing all of this stuff.

Speaker 1:

Did she own, did she herself own the printing press or did she subcontract the printing? Do you know?

Speaker 2:

So she was co-owner and that's actually all I've been able to find on it. I can't find who her business partner was, how

Speaker 1:

She probably really went under the radar after that, with regards to where she was printing her paper. So that would make sense that he was hiding.

Speaker 2:

She kept going. And in fact, just shortly after this, I want to say it was maybe a year after this. And at this time she would have been 26 and she read this was where she authored her first book and it's called Southern horrors Lynch law in all its phases. So I mean, these, these things, these attacks against her, and then trying to run her out of Memphis, it really, it only motivated her further. It only solidified her idea that something had to be done about this type of behavior.

Speaker 1:

Um, so wow. Yeah, that's, that's a lot, that's a lot. And I'm really drawn to stories about , uh , strong women, like Ida in history who just keep moving forward with what they know and believe to be. Right. Um, I wish that I, you know, I, I want to emulate that I am not that courageous, but I admire, you know, women who basically the odds are against them and they just keep moving forward. And this is, you know, it's a brilliant story. And I would like to see it in more in the mainstream myself. Is there anywhere that we can find Ida in pop culture,

Speaker 2:

To be honest, there really isn't because when I was researching her, I love being able to read everything. I can listen to all the podcasts, watch all the YouTube things, get the documentary. If there's a movie about it, I am going to watch it a million times. And for her, unfortunately , it's really just a lot of articles and there's some YouTube videos too, but in terms of documentary , uh , really kind of breaking down her life, there's nothing that's recent that would be, you know, on Netflix or easily accessible to, to watch, which is really a shame because what a story, right. And it's completely real.

Speaker 1:

We're going to stop here for today, but be sure to join us next week for part two, my interview with Melanie Hamilton, where we continue our conversation about Ida B Wells and why this history is so important, especially today. And we're going to learn more about Melanie's passion project, savor in your, thanks for joining us today and have a great week [inaudible] .